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Pentagon: Majority of National Guard bonus clawbacks will be dismissed

Pentagon: Majority of National Guard bonus clawbacks will be dismissed
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The Pentagon expects to dismiss debt collection for at least 15,000 of the 17,500 soldiers that were erroneously paid thousands of dollars in bonuses and other incentives by the California National Guard about a decade ago.  

"We're going through a screening process that will eliminate about 15,000 of the cases off the top," said Peter Levine, acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, at a Pentagon briefing on Monday. 

Levine said California National Guard soldiers with debts dismissed should start receiving notices next month on a rolling basis.

Those who qualify for debt dismissal who have already begun paying back their bonuses will be reimbursed and have adverse actions to their credit fixed, Levine said. 

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A Los Angeles Times story in October revealed that the California National Guard was seeking repayment from thousands of soldiers who were given reenlistment bonuses and other incentives at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

The Guard had concluded through an audit that those incentives had been paid erroneously and was using aggressive debt collection measures on some soldiers to seek recoupment. 

But the vast majority of those incentives were accepted in good faith and deemed erroneous due to missing paperwork, paperwork errors or other mistakes. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter later suspended the clawbacks and ordered the Pentagon to establish a process to review and adjudicate all relevant cases by July 1. 

Levine said that process is now in place and expects all cases to be resolved "well before" the July deadline. 

Although 17,500 soldiers were notified of debt recoupment, only 1,400 have so far been referred for actual collection.

About half of those 1,400 cases are expected to be dismissed, the service members' credit reports repaired and any payments reimbursed. Those will include cases in which the service member fulfilled their commitment for the incentive and did not know they were ineligible for bonuses.

For the remaining 16,000 who were simply notified of debt, Levine said about 15,000 of them will have their cases dismissed, particularly for smaller and older debts, as well as those involving junior-ranking service members who might not have known about eligibility for those incentives. 

"We're just — we're not pursuing those cases at all," Levine said. 

The remaining 1,000 cases will be put through a more thorough review process.

"Only those cases in which the soldier didn't fulfill their commitment, or there's reason to believe that there was fraud or knowledge on the part of the soldier, will go before [an Army Board for the Correction of Military Records]," Levine said. 

Levine said he ultimately expects that fewer than 1,000 cases will end before correction boards, where the soldier will have an opportunity to present his or her case.  

"We think that the number of cases in which we'll be recouping will be a few hundred, as opposed to the many thousands of cases that are under the Sword of Damocles, as I said, right now," he said. 

"Most of the cases in which we'll be recouping will actually be cases in which the soldiers did not fulfill their commitment. There will be some cases in which we have fraud or evidence of fraud or knowledge or should've known. But most of the cases in which we'll be recouping, we will be recouping because the soldier didn't fulfill their commitment."

The revelation of the clawbacks of bonuses from soldiers prompted fury in Congress, particularly among members of the California delegation. Pentagon and National Guard officials at a hearing last month acknowledged that the issue had slipped through the cracks over a number of years. 

Levine said problems in the approval process for the bonuses have been fixed, and a single person can no longer approve them. Various checks and review cycles are now part of the approval process, he said.